tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 27

The Blood Pact Ch. 27


Though I now knew where the Transformation Wand was, I felt more trapped than ever. A distinct change had come over Bakoro since I'd let him fuck me in Master Oringel's tower. He now watched me closer than ever, though not in suspicion, but rather with lust. He still had enough sense not to pursue me in public, but except when Lord Ruvano had specific duties for him to perform elsewhere, he personally took on my guard duty almost exclusively; no doubt praying for my mood to eventually favor him with a repeat performance of the last time.

Just why did it have to be him who, quite literally, held the keys to my freedom? Getting my hands on them was not going to be easy. Pilfering them in his sleep didn't seem like a possibility since the man slept as lightly as a cat -- the few times I'd actually seen him do so. But even if I could gain access to the tower once more, I would still have the dilemma of what to do with the Wand itself. Its absence would only leave me with a week at the most to unlock its secrets and make my escape before it was missed during Bakoro's next inventory. Replacing it with a counterfeit was a possibility, though I wasn't sure I wanted to risk my continued wellbeing on something so risky.

Stalking through the corridors of the noble's wing one morning, I was still no closer to a solution. As always, Bakoro followed me like a lost puppy. If only I could be rid of him for a few moments.

"Come now, don't get so far ahead of me," Bakoro said, suddenly taking hold of me by the arm.

With face turned so he wouldn't see, I gritted my teeth. He was becoming entirely too friendly with me. I did my best to imitate Delphina's mannerisms as I rose up to my most domineering height. Even that barely brought me to Bakoro's shoulder, though.

"You forget your place!" I snapped. "You may be my guardian, but I am still a noblewoman, and you will not lay your hands on me!"

"Of course, m'lady...unless you ask me to." He released my arm, but his smile was mocking.

I could have knifed him right there. He was such an arrogant brute, I probably could have had my dagger buried in his heart before he even realized what was happening. Maybe I could even convince Lord Ruvano he had it coming.

A short distance down the hallway, I caught sight of Natalie, likely going about on some chore or another. Standing stark still at the intersection of two passages, however, she was staring intently at the two of us. The moment she noticed my eyes upon her, she hurried on again.

I never had found out what Lord Ruvano had done to convince her to stop spying for the queen, but I had seen her several times watching me as if she still was. Was she still in the queen's employ? Or was she now reporting to Lord Ruvano instead? With Bakoro as my constant shadow, I'd never thought that Lord Ruvano might also have me under surveillance from other fronts as well. Just one wrong word in the right ear could ruin everything I'd worked so hard to achieve. I wasn't about to let it all go just like that. In that one moment, the unmitigated rage I felt toward Bakoro boiled up inside me and I stormed after Natalie.

Bakoro was on my heels the whole way. As I rounded the corner, Natalie glanced over her shoulder, increased her own pace for a few steps, but then stopped with a look of panic in her eyes. She knew that whatever I wanted with her, it wouldn't do to compound her troubles by running from a noblewoman.

As I closed on her, I drew my dagger from the hidden pocket concealed in my dress. Every piece of my wardrobe had come with one so I was never without the blade, and my lessons in the forest had given me enough skill that I was able to bring it into service without the least bit of fumbling.

With one arm, I pushed Natalie back against the wall while I placed the knife against her throat with the other. Though my height might have been minuscule next to Bakoro, it was more than enough to dwarf Natalie. Her eyes grew wide and tears began to fall almost instantly. My own expression was like stone. I had to know what she was up to. I couldn't let anyone find out about me and Bakoro; or any of my other clandestine endeavors.

"Hello, Natalie. We haven't had much opportunity to speak to one another recently -- certainly not after you almost got me killed by selling me out to the queen! I thought we were friends. What could I have ever done to deserve such rancor from you?"

"I swear I didn't know it would put you in danger! Lord Ruvano made me see straight. I'm not taking the queen's coin no more 'cept when he wants me to! I swear it!"

"With how often I find your eyes on me, that is somewhat difficult to believe." I brought the knife to her face and dragged the flat of the blade across her cheek, smearing her tears. "Are you working for someone else now? I already have enough idiots following me around without you watching my every move as well."

I pointed with the tip of the dagger over my shoulder at Bakoro. He smiled grimly, putting his scar on fine display. Natalie squirmed under my grip and whimpered like a child.

"In the future, it would serve you well not to take so much of an interest in me. Do you understand?"

Frantically, with eyes pinched closed, she nodded. "Yes, yes, I understand, please, just don't kill me!"

Abruptly, I stepped back as if slapped. Natalie all but collapsed to the floor, a pitiful sobbing heap. What the hell was I doing? As I'd often told Nikelle with such vehemence, I was not a murderer. I couldn't hurt Natalie any more than I could kill Bakoro. Was my own freedom really so important that I was willing to compromise every moral I had? I felt like I was going to be sick.

Stashing the dagger back in its sheath, I turned and walked away, leaving Natalie where she lay. Bakoro fell in behind me, casting one last look back before we passed around a corner.

"Lady Stephanie?" he said. I could practically hear the malicious smile playing across his uneven lips. "You're more sexy than I ever realized."

Me playing rough with one of the servant girls turned him on? Oh, just what I wanted. I still couldn't believe I'd actually treated her like that. I glared at him over my shoulder as we kept walking. He cast me a toothy grin in reply.

"But you know," he continued, "I hear she's a lesbian. Maybe she's just got the hots for you."

He was probably right -- jealousy was often a stronger motivation than money ever was -- but I wasn't about to admit anything to him at the moment. "Shut up, Bakoro."

"Yes, M'LADY..." he smiled.

Maybe I couldn't bring myself to kill him but I was sure I could come up with some other imaginative fate for Bakoro. Men like him and the King might have used violence to achieve their ends, but I was a Baroness Stephanie of the royal court. I would not allow myself to become like them simply because my temper got the better of me. I needed to be smarter than that -- like this problem of finding a way back into the wizard's tower.

During drunken card games with Master Oringel, I'd heard him brag often enough about his tower's security measures to know that just having the keys would not have been enough to allow access. Lord Ruvano was a spymaster, but even he couldn't have had the cunning to neutralize a master wizard's defenses. He must have found another way in.

Through the windows? No, then any thief in the realm would have had free access. Perhaps the backdoor was less guarded than the front. Few people even knew it existed. To have any chance of getting past the guards, it would have to be MY only option. Apparently, it was also how Bakoro had gained entrance. Unfortunately, that just brought me back to the need to steal his keys. However, the one time I'd actually been with Master Oringel when he'd unlocked it, he hadn't used a key at all...

My step faltered and my eyes opened wide, flittering about but seeing nothing at all. My gods! A secret combination known only to the wizard that would allow him access even if he lost his keys? Could it really be that simple? If it were, I wouldn't need Bakoro at all.

I was on edge the next several days waiting for an opportunity to cast off my shadow for a few moments so I could test my theory. Bakoro was steadfast in his duties, but eventually Lord Ruvano sent him on some task that required he assign one of his underlings to my watch instead. It was fortunate that it turned out to be Mazantius. He looked like a freckle-faced boy, but he was deadly with those paired swords he carried. He was also absolute shit in a saddle. The moment I stepped out of Lord Ruvano's chambers wearing my divided skirts and heading for the stables, I could see him sweating.

"Um...my lady?" he said, jogging to catch up with me and holding his swords to keep them from flailing about. "If I could ask, where are you headed?"

With head held high, I kept walking at a brisk pace. "I'm going for a ride, not that it's any business of yours."

"I know, my lady, I know, but it is my duty to make sure you don't come to any harm. Perhaps if you could wait for a moment while I summon another guard who could accompany you on horseback..."

"I have no intention of altering my schedule to fit your needs," I said, still not slowing my pace. It was a challenge to keep from smirking. "If you can find your man before I leave, he's welcome to accompany me, but I'll not wait for him."

Checking his stride, Mazantius nearly tripped over his own feet in the middle of the empty hallway. "Oh, bloody hell," I heard him mutter. "I'll be right back with someone, my lady, don't you worry!"

"Oh, you can be well-assured I have no worries at all."

As he went running back the way we'd just come, I couldn't hold back my smile any longer. Even though I nearly considered Mazantius a friend, that had still been fun. Once he disappeared from sight, I did one final scan of the hallway to ensure I was truly alone and then ducked down one of the side passages that lead to the servants' corridors.

I hurried through the dimly-lit passages, checking my pace only when I passed those few servants who happened to be about. It wasn't entirely uncommon to see an occasional noble there, so my presence was probably of no great interest to them. Once I dropped into the lower levels, there was no one at all to see me. Only Bakoro would likely have reason to even be down there, but his weekly inventory wasn't for another few days.

Shortly, I arrived at the backdoor to the tower. My heart was pounding in my throat and I couldn't help looking both ways up and down the passage. Everything was darkness except for the few lamps which provided a dull illumination.

Now I just needed to remember the right sequence. I'd only seen it once, and I hadn't been paying attention to its importance at the time, but I'd thought about it until my brain hurt and I was almost positive I'd figured it out. With another check of the hallway, I kicked the stone door jamb twice and then pulled on the door ring.

Nothing happened.

I was positive I had remembered it correctly. Again I kicked the jamb, harder this time, and pulled on the ring, but with identical results. Maybe I'd been wrong about the whole thing. Maybe I was going to have to find a way to acquire Bakoro's keys after all. I didn't want to sleep with him again.

In frustration and anger, I took hold of the door ring and began tugging violently as I kicked the jamb until my toe became sore.

"You fucking piece of shit!" I said. "Just open up, damn you! Open up!"

Then, between two of my more forceful tugs, the door started swinging open. It caught me with such surprise that my next intended tug at the door ring accidentally pulled it closed before I even realized what was happening. It slammed shut with a crash that echoed loudly through those stone corridors.

Still holding fast to the door ring, I clenched my jaw and stared down the length of the hallway. It would be just my luck to finally get the stupid thing open, only to give myself away in the process. I waited there in the dark for what felt like several minutes before I allowed myself to push against the door. Again, it was sealed tight.

Trying to remember what it was I'd done to achieve a successful result, I did my best to repeat it. Despite my bruised toe, I kicked the jamb in what I thought was the same place as hard as I was able and then pulled the door ring, giving it something of a twist in the process.

My jaw dropped as the door silently swung open, pulling the ring right out of my stunned fingers.

I stifled a cry of joy and jumped inside, quietly closing the door behind me before someone might happen along and see me trespassing.

Master Oringel's chambers were just as I'd last seen them, dark shadows filling the corners where the light from the windows didn't quite reach, but they felt somehow more foreboding this time, as if I was being watched. I knew it was just my imagination, however, and did my best to shake the feeling as I dashed across the room to the chest. It was still unlocked and I lifted the lid to find the wand right where it had been before.

I clenched my hands into fists and bit my knuckles, pinching my eyes shut against the tears. After all this time, I'd made it. I could finally get out of this infernal mess.

However, a heavy weight fell over me and I sat back on my ankles as I realized that, even now, I still couldn't take the wand with me. With Bakoro's next inventory only a few days away, its absence would promptly be discovered. Even if I fled the palace right now, leaving all of my stashed coin behind, Bakoro's men were already looking for me. My disappearance would be noticed far too soon and they wouldn't rest until I was brought back.

Damn it!

If I just had a bit more free reign in my activities, I could do it, but not with Bakoro constantly breathing down my neck. Before I did anything further, I needed to get rid of him.

With eyes narrowed, I glanced around the room, trying desperately to think of something. I couldn't stand the thought of putting this opportunity off any longer than I already had. Suddenly, my eyes fell on the table covered to overflowing with Master Oringel's alchemical glassware.

I shot to my feet and carefully extracted the small silver teakettle from all the rest. To a casual glance, it wouldn't be missed. After all, Bakoro himself had said he wasn't even taking the inventories all that seriously anymore. Even if he was, the horrid stench of the rotting foodstuffs would probably keep anyone from getting too close. Yes, this might just work.

I stashed the teakettle in my dress's hidden pocket. It left something of a bulge, but I was fortunate that the fall of the ribbons on this particular dress helped to disguise that fact nicely. Returning to the chest, I stared at the Transformation Wand for a good long time with the lid half closed. I could still take it, but in the end, I left it where it was. Since I was the only one who had ever voiced interest in it, its disappearance would raise far too many of the wrong kinds of questions.

Using my dagger, I cut a small piece of fabric from the tattered edge a bed sheet and stuffed it into the catch on the lock. I kept my fingers crossed as I pressed the hasp back into place. It closed with a soft click and to all appearances looked as if it were again locked. However, a simple tug caused it to pop right open again without any trouble at all. That was a little trick me and my brothers had perfected as children in order to gain access to our parents' chests when snooping about for our winter solstice presents. Now, I could not only get back into the tower, but also the chest as well, whenever the opportunity was right.

All I had left to do was clear my path.

I stood at the inside of the tower's backdoor for what must have been ten minutes before I worked up the nerve to take a peek outside. It was probably foolish to think that there would even be anyone there waiting for me. After all, the only reason they'd check the tower was if I'd been gone so long they'd exhausted every other possibility. As far as they knew, it was the last place I could have been. The corridor was still clear, so I hurried off toward the stables.

Emerging from the storerooms, I entered the stables without being seen by the replacement guard Mazantius had secured to accompany me on my ride. It wasn't much of a surprise to see the ever-morose and weather-beaten Yanthas waiting in the courtyard with his horse already saddled. Whenever it was known beforehand that I was going to be riding, he was usually the one assigned to my watch. Though he couldn't quite match me on horseback, he was still an excellent rider who I had spoken with at length about horses and horsemanship on more than one occasion. At the moment, he was probably wondering if he'd missed my departure entirely. I hoped I hadn't caused him too much worry, but by now most of Lord Ruvano's men had gotten used to my frequent efforts to evade them.

The grooms had come to respect me as a skilled rider with a true affinity for their horses so they were more than happy to get Diamondhead saddled for me quickly and feign ignorance when I rode unexpectedly out of the stables, catching my guardian unaware. Yanthas had to scramble to catch up, which he did eventually, but by that point, it was hardly a matter for concern. All of Lord Ruvano's men could have been following me for all I cared. I just needed some time to think. The plan that I'd hastily conceived in Master Oringel's chamber was quickly taking shape, growing into something I was quite proud to think of as my own. I think even Fildrich would have been rather impressed. By the time I returned to the Palace, I could hardly wait to speak with Delphina. I went straight to her quarters, finding Traemene waiting for me in the antechamber.

"I heard you went riding," she said. "Couldn't you have told us? I would have liked to come along."

"Too busy," I said, barely altering my stride. "Far too much going on this morning. Is Delphina in?"

"Waiting for you," Treamene called after me, "Lord Fildrich is there as well."

"Excellent! Thank you!"

In the parlor, I found Delphina and her nephew sitting down to tea.

"You look to be in good spirits this morning," Fildrich said, setting his cup aside.

His smile made me feel as if I was the only one in the whole world he ever smiled for. Shaking the doe-eyed expression from my face, I turned to Delphina. If I was going to get the Transformation Wand soon, it meant I was going to be a man again. I needed to stop thinking like a woman.

"I'll just get right to the point," I said. "I require your assistance in getting rid of Bakoro."

"That could be easily arranged," Fildrich said, chuckling. "With that man's reputation, we could have him knifed in some back alley and no one would ever question it as anything other than foul play at the hand of some cutpurse."

Delphina eyed her nephew with aversion. She must have found the idea of killing someone so casually just as repugnant as I did. "Why now?" she said. "Bakoro's been Lord Ruvano's right hand for years. What has changed to make it worthwhile to deal with him now?"

"That man follows me everywhere. He pays far too close attention to my activities. With our recent alliance, he endangers everything." All true, though in actuality, his surveillance only helped to reinforce the deception we were conducting against Lord Ruvano. Even though they were my allies, I couldn't let them know the true reasons for my need. Perhaps a more emotional appeal might help win my case. "He also has designs on bedding me, forcefully if possible, but Lord Ruvano has forbidden him from doing so under penalty of death."

"Oh Stephanie, you can't mean to -- " Delphina suddenly sat up very straight. She must have thought I planned to let him have me so that we could be found together. How shocked would she have been if she knew what I'd already done?

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