Vermillion stepped closer to Iaondrin as everyone began filing out. “We’ll find one for you.” He looked to Gilford to see if he knew where one was, and if they could actually go use it. “We’d prefer one that Lord Tallentire hasn’t used. For anything.” He gave Iaondrin a sidelong glance and a crooked smile.
Celadra watched the barrister and his clients as her mistress stood and gathered her bag of scrolls and books. For the first time in a while, she was interested in what happened in the Council. “Quite an interesting situation,” Ankarra remarked, shouldering her bag. “Maybe we should learn a little more.”
“Yes, mistress,” Celadra agreed, stifling a smile at Ankarra’s ability to seem absent-minded.
“There is a privy outside the chamber,” Gilford told Iaondrin. He had stepped aside as people were leaving, to scan the public galleries. A guard had come forward to stand at a discreet distance behind him. “Come back here when you are finished – we have a room for us to use for meeting. I will try to find out whether the Council will convene again today – I suspect Oberuc will try to hold out until tomorrow.”
“All right.” She headed for the exit down the tunnel Manton had led them through earlier. A few people lingered to watch, clearly hoping to eavesdrop or perhaps even speak to her. “I’m not sure I am in a much better position now than before,” she said to Vermillion once they were out of earshot of anyone. “But he seems pleased. At least I think so, he’s almost impossible to read.”
“Yeah, I kept waiting for the person to come and tell them you were telling the truth, and no one even asked you anything.” Vermillion needed to develop the glare that would warn others away, but walking with his sword half-drawn seemed to be message enough to stay back. “Still, with what you were facing, could anyone seriously think you would come here if you were guilty? Not sure even Oberuc is that deluded.” When they got to the door for the privy, he stopped her for a moment, his right hand lightly grasping her forearm, hers grasping his, meeting her gaze. “Just a little longer, my Lady.”
She did not seem too reassured, and glared at the few other women passing into the entrance of the privy, and those coming out of the exit, when they looked at her sideways. “It isn’t about whether I’m guilty. It’s about whether someone can claim the Seat. It has always been about that. Now I have take a piss.”
“Yell if you need me,” he told her. When her frown started, he added, “No, in case someone needs gutting.” He stood outside the exit door, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed watching the people milling about, some clearly hoping for a view of the returning A’nari.
Some met his eyes as he looked around, some dropped their gaze. Others passed by and pretended not to notice him. One Shal woman in particular, nose turned up high, turned into the rest room with a haughty sniff, pulling the edges of her skirt aside so they would not brush against him … and as she disappeared inside the privy, he caught a glimpse of steel held down along her other leg.
Vermillion was amazed at how fast the first attempt came. Moving to the door the woman had gone through, he drew sword and sap, holding sword in right hand and hoping the sap did its job and they could get some answers later. He placed the sword between the next woman trying to enter and the door to stop her. “Get the guard,” he said without looking at her. “Now.” He took a deep breath and pushed his way through the door.
The woman had taken a position outside a stall, waiting. So intently was she fixed on waiting for the door to become unlatched that she failed to register Vermillion’s silent entry at her back. A long, flat curved blade was held in one hand, ready to stab inwards when the door opened.
Vermillion slipped quietly up to the woman He brought the sap around in a blistering arc and hit her in the side of the head. The blow drove the woman into the door of the stall, and she scrambled for purchase to keep from falling, losing the grip on her blade and letting it tumble to the floor. Without waiting for her to collect herself, he swung hard twice more hitting the head and back of the neck. As she laid on the floor, he kicked her weapon across the small room. It would be easy to make the example here and now, he reflected while considering the runes on his sword, glimmering an angry red in the magelight. “Fuckin’ lucky I didn’t use my sword, bitch.”
The door of the stall opened and Iaondrin looked out. She held a blade – the poisoned one – in her right hand, and looked from Vermillion to the unconscious woman. Two other stalls opened, and confused bystanders peeked out. Iaondrin stepped out and glared at them, and both doors closed again, softly. Footsteps came running, announcing the arrival of the guard, and Iaondrin sheathed her blade without comment.
Vermillion rolled the limp heap on the floor to her back with the toe of his boot. “She seemed to think you were taking too long in there,” he said drily. “Ever seen her before?” As the door burst open, he dropped into a crouch, sword extended in case it wasn’t the guards.
Iaondrin had been about to say that she had urinated as fast as she could, but didn’t have the opportunity. As two Aihv’ guards came in, followed by the woman who had stood behind the representative from Tarrish, she folded her arms across her chest and wondered how quickly she would be able to move out of the stall. Not immediately, as the two Aihv’ guards drew both their weapons when they saw Vermillion’s blade and demanded that he stand down or be skewered. She frowned, looked them both over, and figured they would have a bit of trouble doing it by themselves. The woman, though … well, add her into the mix and it might be a real fight. Of course, it wouldn’t just be Vermillion, and it wouldn’t just be blades, if Iaondrin herself got into it, and she found herself contemplating how the room might look if she were to draw on the mage-lights and set the walls aflame. Not that she could necessarily do that, with the Aihv’s magical wards and all, but wouldn’t it be nice to try?
All that passed through her mind, since she had enough sense not to voice her thoughts aloud. After all, it wasn’t just her and Jaely traveling alone on the road anymore, and it really wouldn’t do to have rumors starting about how the A’nari heir tended to talk to herself in rambling monologues.
“Not me,” he growled at them, slamming his sword back into its scabbard. His tone said they must be idiots to think a man would go into the women’s privy to assassinate someone. At least while dressed as a man. “That one,” he pointed sharply at the unconscious Shal woman. He made sure to stay between Iaondrin and everyone else, which had the unfortunate side effect of keeping her in the stall, but no one was getting to her without going through him.
“He stood with the Lady A’nari at the Council,” the half-Shal woman told the guards. Vermillion eyed her curiously for a moment, then tensed, still ready for a fight as the guards came closer to examine the would-be assassin.
Iaondrin glared daggers at Vermillion’s back, but he didn’t seem to feel them. Not even the slightest itch of discomfort, as far as she could tell, since he stayed there unmoving. When one of the guards stooped to lift the woman and the other asked if they would like to open an investigation, she snapped (though she was mostly unseen inside the stall), “No, not at all, I don’t really mind if someone tries to gut me while I’m taking a piss.” She could see there were people craning to see into the privy from the entrance, and sighed heavily. Well, at least she had her trousers pulled back up and fastened.
“I want to know who she is and who she worked for no longer than five minutes after you find out,” Vermillion ordered. “If I have to go looking for the information myself, I am going to be very put out.” There was no other way to read his tone but to know that there would be more bodies lying on the floor, and not all of them would be getting up again. When one of the guards frowned and opened his mouth to admonish him, Vermillion just stared at him. The guard’s eyes flicked to the body.
“We’ll tell our cap’n,” he changed what he was going to say.
“Also,” Vermillion went on a little more conversationally, “you may want to tell the other two ladies down there that they can come out now.”
The other two stall doors cracked open, and under the watchful eye of the guards and the half-Shal woman, they gladly scurried out. The two picked up the unconscious woman and toted her off, leaving the other stranger behind. Iaondrin poked Vermillion in the back with a finger. “Can you get out of my way now, or are we setting up camp in here?”
Vermillion took one step forward, just enough for Iaondrin to be able to step out of the stall, but he stayed between her and the stranger. He sized up the half-Shal woman, saw her doing the same to him
“That didn’t take long, did it?” she asked finally.
“Faster’n I thought it could be put together. Amateurish, though, that might account for it,” he answered. She nodded.
“Celadra,” she introduced herself. She wasn’t sure he would take her hand at this moment if she offered it.
“Vermillion. My Lady A’Nari,” he tilted his head towards his charge.
“Yes, I was in the chamber when she introduced herself.” Vermillion frowned for a moment.
“With the woman with the fine distinctions.”
“Councillor Ankarra, from Tarrish,” Celadra answered, with a nod. His eyebrows rose in surprise.
“Tarrish? Huh. Nightsong Guild,” he tapped his chest with one hand. She nodded in understanding, seemed about to say something, but he went on, “We need to get back. And stop tyin’ up the privy.”
“I could walk with you,” she offered. It was an offer of help, to get Iaondrin down the hundred feet of corridor with no further trouble. Vermillion frowned, looked to Iaondrin, then back. What does she want? She has her own Councillor. She didn’t seem to be hiding anything, but that wasn’t Vermillion’s area of expertise. And they needed to get back in public before Kaz came crashing in and spoiled the surprise. He nodded and motioned her to go first out the exit.
Iaondrin flexed her hands and fought back the urge to pull out a blade and stab someone – anyone – with it, then followed Vermillion when he followed the woman. People had gathered and were staring, and for a moment she felt the same rush of nervousness when they had walked into the Council chamber. Hold your head up, she told herself, remembering that Ellinden So’s own Evandin had told her that. She clenched her jaw, lifted her chin, and glared, letting them all know she would readily pull her sword, or her knives, and gut them if they thought to cause trouble. “Let’s go see Gilford.”
Among the gathering crowd, Vermillion could catch just a glimpse of Kaz, just enough to let him know that his fellow guildsman was nearby.
Vermillion made the motion every Nightsong member knew—‘all clear’. As they walked, he kept his eyes on both the crowd and their helper, still unsure of what she wanted. She walked steadily on, eyes watching the crowd, seemingly unconcerned with the situation, just walking with some other people. He envied Celadra her composure. At the room, he made sure Iaondrin had her hand on the door latch before he turned to Celadra. “Thank you,” he offered with some formality. She nodded.
“Perhaps we could talk later,” she responded. Vermillion looked to Iaondrin, but the request had been made to him, guard to guard.
“Not sure where we’ll be, but yes.” He watched her give a slight bow then move off to tend to her own charge. Vermillion cast a suspicious glance over the crowd, then followed his Lady into the meeting room.
Gilford sat at a long table, a lawbook open in front of him and several others stacked at the edge. He nodded at his guard, sending the man outside the room to watch the door. After the guard was gone, he placed an intricately carved wooden box in the center of the table and touched it. Iaondrin’s reaction was visible, a sudden jerk of surprise.
“It keeps anyone from listening or scrying,” Gilford explained, but she still stood there for a moment staring. He frowned slightly, and then his expression cleared. “Yes, the carving is Raeve’s. I didn’t realize you would recognize it.”
She pulled out a chair across from him and sat. “He tried to teach me to whittle. It didn’t take. Ask Vermillion.”
“Terrible,” he said shortly, then immediately changed the subject. “I hope you can do something soon, or I’m going to have to start killing people.”
“Might be a way for him to get another client if you did.” Iaondrin sat back in her chair, arms folded.
Gilford smiled slightly. He placed a mark inside the book he had been reading and folded it closed. “We have managed to maneuver things so that the League cannot demand that the High Council simply turn you over for trial in Halveet. However, the Council will not sit again until tomorrow afternoon. Oberuc – as well as the factions supporting Fournier and Priore – have been able to hold enough people out to prevent a quorum. It gives them time to try to figure out what your goals are and how to thwart them. And, most likely, how to create situations that lead to the need for killing,” he added with a slight nod to Vermillion.
“Like when Iaondrin goes to the privy?” he asked archly.
He froze in place for an instant, and then looked at both of them. “No harm to you?” She shook her head. He sat back and considered his folded hands, and then looked back up. “Even if you can establish that you were not involved in Clunne raids on caravans, those things are going to keep happening.”
“I expected some,” Vermillion stated. “I didn’t really expect one in the first five minutes.” Turning half away from them, he found himself torn. He really wanted to hush everyone who thought to threaten Iaondrin – blades and fire after all – but he had to remember he wasn’t a murderer. His skills and training would make it easy, but he needed to be better than that. She deserved better than that.
“Opportunistic most likely. I will see what I can find out. The next step at this point, if you are not going to push to make a claim for the Seat, then you need to establish that the League’s charges are unfounded.” He looked down at his hands again, and then back up at her. “If this were occurring in Halveet, or a League court, you would be questioned by one or more priests or priestesses of Otori – however many the court would feel is necessary to ensure any lies would be seen. Here, you have the right to demand inquiry from your own church, if you have one.”
Iaondrin shook her head. “I don’t have one. No church, no god or goddess. I’ve had no use for them.” She said it flatly, face grim. “So what are my options then?”
“The individual interrogator cannot be someone of our selection, lest it be someone who would themselves lie for you. There is a procedure for the Council to select.” He looked at Vermillion. “For the Chatterton Six, one chose soothsay over trial. It took two months for all parties to agree who the interrogators would be.” He smiled. “Then again, in that case, we made sure to drag the process out. Here, we want to expedite it, and I can make sure that is done. If that is what you want.”
Vermillion took a breath and turned to Iaondrin. His thoughts of murder broke apart, fading as he studied her. “We need her name cleared. I said I would help her stop all those that hunt her and the League is just the first stop.” He took two steps and was next to her. He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, leaving the final decision up to her.
“I’d like to have it done quickly,” she answered. Her shoulders and neck were tense, the only signs of her continued anger.
Gilford nodded. “You should know, given more time, I could vet every priest who is proposed, and negotiate over the wording of every question. We will not have that opportunity here – but then, neither will your opponents. I recommend that we demand more than one interrogator – at least three – to lower the risk of bias. It also makes it harder for anyone else to stall by arguing that we are trying to stack the deck.” He looked from Iaondrin to Vermillion and back again. “I can probably make those arrangements between now and tomorrow afternoon. You will need to try to avoid getting killed until then.”
“It’s a deal,” Vermillion said. “We’re going to need chambers for the night. I’m guessing they won’t let us leave the island, so is there an inn down in that town that is more secure than others?”
“I will be staying at The Cauldron. It is set back from the surrounding buildings, has a stone wall, and bars on the windows that unlock from the inside.” At Iaondrin’s look, he shrugged. “Since becoming involved with the Six, I have had to take such things into account. I will have my guards with me as well. There are a couple of others that my staff looked into, but they prefer this one.”
“Can you exchange some gems for me? So we can have coin to pay for it?” She reached for a pouch. “And I want to make sure I am paying your fee.” She did not bother adding that, in light of what Tallentire had said, she wanted to lessen whatever debt she might end up owing to Ellinden So.
“We, my Lady,” Vermillion murmured. “I have coin enough.” Then to Gilford, “In fact, we have sent you some coin to take care of some letters for us, in case things didn’t go well here. Though our letter of explanation seems to be wasted ink now.”
Gilford pushed his spectacles back up his nose. “My secretary will hold them until they can be returned to you. I can have some of my guards escort you to the Cauldron. I’m afraid there isn’t much that can be done to completely hide where you end up, though.”
“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so much fun,” Vermillion answered dryly. “Besides, the guards here need to know where to bring me that information I requested.”
Gilford did not ask what information that might be, he simply stood to open the door and ask the one guard outside to call some others to escort them to the Cauldron when they were ready to leave.
Outside the room, Vermillion knew Kaz was lurking nearby and signed ‘follow’ so that he would stay with them. Gilford’s description of the layout of the inn might mean trouble for Kaz to get close enough to keep guarding. Sure, given enough time, Kaz could get in most anywhere, but there was also the problem of him getting tangled with Gilford’s own guards. It looked like Kaz would have to get a room in the inn himself, but there were no signs for that in the Guild.
He took his position next to Iaondrin, eyes scanning everywhere, and they followed Gilford’s people out of the fortress and through the streets to the inn. Vermillion’s worries proved correct. There was no getting close in daylight, and it would be difficult to loiter at night. As they went through the gate in the wall, he signed for Kaz to follow again, hoping that Kaz was about to realize the same things he had. Vermillion also hoped that Gilford’s men didn’t see Kaz, or at least didn’t give it away. He glanced at Iaondrin as they entered the inn, deciding it was time she knew.
He paid for a suite, with private bath, for three days and asked for a bottle of Vanek red and a plate of bread, cheese and fruit to be sent up.
To be continued.