tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 29

The Blood Pact Ch. 29


Bright sunlight in a kaleidoscope of colors streamed in through the narrow leaded-glass windows of the bath chamber. The scent of perfumed soap filled the moist air. With eyes closed, I lounged back in the vast copper tub. Rubbing my silky legs together beneath the steaming water, I let out a long sigh. I was going to miss luxuries like this when I left the palace. A tub this large would cost a fortune just to rent for half an hour at a public bathhouse. Still, I was willing to lose a few luxuries in exchange for not having to risk my neck with nearly every action I took. I'd sent all the servants away so that I could have a few blessed moments of solitude. Removing Bakoro from the board had given me more freedom than I ever could have imagined, but in other ways it added new complications to my life as well.

Three days after his arrest and he was still locked away in some dank dungeon cell. Lord Ruvano had all but given up trying to get a confession out of the man, but that didn't mean he was ever going to accept his innocence either. I stayed well clear for fear of any words he might speak if he were to see me. In all likelihood he'd end up rotting away down there, never to see the sunlight again. It couldn't have happened to a better man.

The problems arose from Lord Ruvano's increasing paranoia. No longer willing to fully trust any of his men, he'd taken on all of Bakoro's responsibilities himself, stretching himself to the limit. He never seemed able to relax anymore. Even Nikelle's attempted assassination hadn't set him on edge this badly. For a time I feared he might attempt to move the contents of Master Oringel's tower to a more secure location, but as far as he knew, Bakoro was the only one other than himself who had had access. With his lieutenant imprisoned and the keys now in his possession alone, the tower probably still seemed like the most protected place in the entire kingdom.

Lord Ruvano's men would never dare grumble in his presence, but they spoke more openly with me, secure in the knowledge that I would not report them to their employer. I could tell they were increasingly at odds with the situation; themselves feeling betrayed by not only by Bakoro's supposed actions but also by Lord Ruvano's lack of trust in them.

With everything in such disarray, my guard lapsed to the point where I no longer had to worry about any shadows at all. This gave me the liberty to come and go as I liked, but it also meant I now had to tend to my daily schedules on my own. It didn't seem like I was able to go five minutes without some servant asking me about the dinner arrangements for the evening or some noble requesting a moment of my time because they believed I held Lord Ruvano's favor. If things didn't settle down soon, I'd have to hire a secretary to keep track of everything. Maybe Delphina could help me locate someone trustworthy enough.

Still, even taking into account all those hassles, between my new-found freedom, Delphina's friendship and tutoring, and Lord Ruvano's stipends, life in the palace wasn't really all that bad. Without constantly having to look back over my shoulder every three steps, I could almost grow used to this kind of life.

However, the Transformation Wand was still waiting for me in that trunk. All I really had to do now was wait a few days without arousing Lord Ruvano's suspicions. Once the worst of the hubbub from Bakoro's arrest died down, then I could make my move. I still wasn't sure exactly what that would be -- there were so many things to consider. If I took the wand with me, Lord Ruvano would suspect me right away, but if I simply used it and then left it behind, I'd have to make sure the transformation was flawless. Master Oringel had said anyone should be able to make the wand work, but I'd never even tried before. Maybe I'd have to start practicing with it. If I wasn't able to turn myself back into Mathis I might instead end up as some hideously deformed monstrosity. Would I even be able to become Stephanie again after something like that?

Maybe I'd have to put off my escape for several weeks yet. After all, I couldn't just abandon Delphina like that. It was going to be hard to leave her behind. Maybe it would be best to push things back until autumn. That way, if anyone did wish to track me down, they would be hindered by the weather. Besides, every day spent in the palace was one more I didn't have to worry about paying my own way. There wasn't any need to rush forward and make a mess of everything.

I stretched out in the tub and propped my feet up on the rim while letting my body sink down to my chin. Yes, I could leave whenever I wanted...if I decided I even needed to.

"Well, you're certainly looking well-rested," a voice said from out of nowhere.

My eyes snapped open in a flash and I twisted around in the tub, sending a wave sloshing over the side. Standing in a shadowed back corner of the room, Nikelle leered down at me.

"What the hell are you doing! How long have you been there?"

She merely shook her head as she came forward and kneeled down next to the tub. "The time has come for us to strike, my sister. We can't wait any longer."

My heart sank. I pushed myself back to the far side of the tub and wrapped my arms tightly around my body. Even surrounded by that steaming water, I suddenly felt cold. "What are you talking about?"

"The betrayal of Lord Ruvano's man has tightened security around the king further than ever before."

"Better reason that ever not to do this!" I said.

"If we don't act now we may never get a chance. With every day that passes, any remaining holes in his defense will be filled."

I had noticed the extra guards in the royal wing, but they hadn't interfered with my visits to the king so I hadn't really given any thought as to why they were there. Had I really been responsible for that?

"Damn it, Nikelle! You can't really be serious! You're going to get us both killed!"

"You've been here for weeks. You must know of some weaknesses we might exploit. Tell me everything you've learned."

"You want to know what I've learned? Well, I'll tell you: this is suicide. You can't just kill the King!"

Nikelle sighed and shook her head. "Don't tell me you've now fallen for HIM as well."

"No!" I said, sloshing over to her side of the tub and gripping the edge tightly. "I mean it's impossible! He's protected by that Dark God of his!"

"I fear no Mordengern 'god'." Nikelle said with a dismissive nod as she stood. "The next time he summons you, just strike him down when he drops his guard -- the same as he was supposed to do with Sir Ruvano. You can't allow yourself to be mastered by these irrational fears you have."

Even if I was willing to help Nikelle, I knew that Dark God wouldn't allow me to just kill the king like she wanted. Sheets of bathwater rolled across my bare flesh as I too stood, my naked body suddenly feeling very heavy as I lifted it from the tub.

"No, you don't understand! It's real! I've seen it!" SEEN was not quite the right word, but to merely say that I had FELT its presence would not have conveyed the appropriate confidence I had in its existance. "This is a fool's quest you're on, Nikelle! You asked for my help in finding out what I could, and I did that for you, but I'll not help you any further! I've finally found a way to free myself from this place and I'm going to take it."

Nikelle narrowed her eyes as she glared at me. Seeing her hand drop to her side, I was in motion even before she was able to reach her blood dagger and draw it forth.

The water wrapped around my legs and tried to hold me down as I leapt from the tub. I rolled onto the tiled flooring, my feet slipping out from under me and sending me splattering to my knees. But I did not allow that to stop me. I scrambled onward and reached the dressing rack which held the gown I'd selected to wear that day. My hand found its hidden pocket and I brought my own dagger into play with a wide slash that intercepted Nikelle's just as it descended on me.

"I told you I wouldn't hesitate to kill you if you didn't do as I asked!"

"And I told you that I am not your bloody assassin!" I said, pushing her back. I came back to my feet charging.

Nikelle parried my thrust and quickly countered with one of her own. I jumped out the way but the point of her blade still managed to nick my left shoulder. I saw blood out of the corner of my eye but felt no pain. The wet tiles under my bare feet were making it hard to react as quickly as I would have liked. Delphina would have been disappointed in my showing thus far.

I dodged Nikelle's next attack with more grace and lashed out with a wild strike, dagger raised high overhead as my wet hair streamed out behind me. She managed to trap the edge of my blade against hers, but I continued baring down with all my strength, the tip of my blade slowly inching closer and closer to her face. I could see the strain in her eyes as she fought back with everything she had just to hold me at bay. Traemene and Wilona had pushed me hard in training, but even when I thought they'd really been trying to kill me, things had never been like this.

After a moment, Nikelle threw me off with a sudden burst of power. We squared off again, blades at the ready, both of us breathing hard.

"You've had some training," Nikelle said. "You've definitely gotten better, but you're still not good enough to defeat me. If you insist on continuing here, you'll die."

"You're right." Without even thinking about it, I subtly shifted my stance in response to Nikelle's. "Even I can see that. But I'll not give up without a fight." I pointed my dagger at her face. "By the time you manage to bring me down, you'll be in no condition to go after the king as you're so clearly hell-bent on doing!"

Nikelle twitched, either from the forcefulness of my words or the truth behind them. Her lip curled back slightly to reveal the points of her white canines.

"Very well," she said. The blade of her dagger melted back into the hilt and she relaxed her stance. I did so as well, but kept my dagger at the ready. "I'll do it myself."

"Nikelle, you don't have to do it at all. It's hopeless. Just come with me. We can get out of here, together."

She shook her head as she headed for the door. "You may be a coward but I'm not."

"Maybe I am a coward, but YOU'RE suicidal. I'm not going to throw MY life away on YOUR obsession."

Those fierce eyes of hers burned into me as she stood at the door with her hand on the latch. After a moment, she left, leaving the door open behind her and letting in a sudden chill draft that pimpled my skin. Standing naked in the center of the room, I looked down at the dagger still held in my hand. My knuckles were white and I could feel the knotwork pattern of the grip digging into my palm. My whole arm was shaking.

I couldn't believe I'd really just held my own against Nikelle like that. I knew I'd taken to Delphina's lessons but I guess I never thought I'd ever actually have to use any of what I'd learned in a real fight. If it hadn't been for that training I would have been dead.

And that's all the friend Nikelle had ever been. To her, I was nothing but a tool to be used then discarded when it could no longer serve its purpose. Let her try to assassinate the king. She'd see soon enough just how real that Dark God of his was. She was the one who was going to end up dead. It would suit her just fine.

Suddenly, my blood ran cold. With Nikelle's failure, they'd finally learn the identity of their Blood Dagger Assassin. Even the smallest connection drawn between her and me would place me under immediate suspicion. All my preparations would be discovered and all my plans brought to light. After all the hard work I'd invested, I would never have a chance to escape.

Damn Nikelle! She was going to ruin everything!

Without bothering to dry myself off, I pulled on the dress. The stitches strained and the fabric pulled at my wet skin, leaving red welts where I forced it to cooperate. Pulling on a random pair of shoes, I rushed out into the main chambers.

I'd have to make my move now. It was my only hope. There wasn't any time left to wait. Once the alarm was raised, I'd be trapped. I needed to get everything in order quickly. Damn! I wouldn't have time to take any of my favorite dresses with me.

What was I thinking? If I got away with this, I wouldn't need any of them ever again. I didn't need anything at all from Lord Ruvano's chambers. Without a constant guard following my every move, I'd been able to relocate my stash of gold and supplies to the royal hunting cabin in the woods. The whole point of doing so was that I would not have to go ransacking the chambers when an opportunity for my departure finally presented itself -- like right now. I needed to calm down. The only thing I needed was the Transformation wand.

I cast one last look over Lord Ruvano's chambers and then left them behind. I had come to think of them as home since becoming Stephanie, but after today, Stephanie would no longer exist. I needed to forget about them.

My hair dripped down my back and soaked the dress through as I strode down the gilded hallways of the noble's wing, drawing strange looks from all who saw me. There was nothing that could be done about that. The damp skirts tangled around my legs and made even walking difficult. It was too risky to go anywhere near Master Oringel's tower on these levels so I went in the opposite direction instead. I followed the servant's passages down into the depths of the palace until I arrived at the secret backdoor to the wizard's tower. It opened on my first attempt and I slipped inside without more than a cursory glance to make sure no one had seen me.

The chest was still right where I'd last seen it. I dashed across the room. Falling to my knees, I jerked at the latch and it popped right open. This was going too well. I held my breath as I lifted the lid. I fully expected the wand to be gone.

I nearly fainted when I was it sitting on top of the other artifacts, just as before. I snatched it up and stuffed it away next to my dagger without any ceremony at all -- there wasn't time for any -- or any practice either. It looked as if I have no choice but to take the wand with me after all. I could test it once I reached the cabin. When they started looking for me, they'd certainly search the palace before throwing their net that far afield. That should give me a little while at least. I only hoped I could make the wand work as I needed it to.

As I resealed the chest and stood, the tocsin of the High Tower's bell sounded through the palace. It wasn't a festival day. That could only mean it was meant as an alarm.

To Be Continued...

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