The Manor’s main hall is intimidating. It was intimidating when I first saw it on the Night of Venice, but now it’s nothing short of crushing with the Marquis’ deadly soldiers-in-black replacing the partying crowd’s laughter. They’re lining a long, impressive table, heavy chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the immense space crawling with whispers.
The Marquis and I sit at the head of the table, and I feel mighty awkward with everybody staring at me like I’m the Queen. The diamond ring on my finger draws serious attention. Kieran’s men look at it and at each other, all of them baffled but for a few exceptions – Zed, whose stony features and ice-blue eyes are fully restored, and Joyous the big-boned, eerie-eyed Healer; the Marquis’ most trusted men, who’ve been with us every step of the way.
There are more soldiers present – serpent men loyal to the Marquis – than I imagined. Probably over three dozen of them. Maybe not enough to stand against the Black Monks, Inspector Jeremy Simmons’ vassal Special Forces and the Elite’s mercenaries, but surely enough to make a point about how much they respect Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis de Vandenesse.
“You’ve always been our leader, whether official or not,” one of them says after Kieran talks about our plan. “We’ve always followed you, but this is pure suicide. We can’t simply attack the Black Monks, they’ll freaking roast us before we get to say ‘charge’.”
“Hear him out, Lugo,” Zed cuts in. He still sounds weak, but then again, only a few hours ago his flesh was practically turning into ashes on his skeleton, so no wonder the healing exhausted him.
“Saphira here,” Kieran continues, “my future wife, has a special talent. She’s a painter whose work amazed and intrigued, but recently we discovered her talent has more powerful underlays.”
He chooses his words well as he tells about my ability of making what his men called “voodoo pictures” that can take over all harm done to a person, leaving the person unscathed. At the right moment Zed stands and bares a part of his tattooed back where the last remains of the bubonic plague are visibly healing.
“I owe this to Saphira Lothar,” he declares, giving me a deeply grateful look, and going on to explain what happened. The man who first spoke – Lugo – stares at me like I’m turning into a mermaid with every word that leaves Zed’s mouth.
“This is a miracle,” he says. The crowd turns restless, but Kieran’s voice rises over them. Everybody falls silent, eyes stuck to him, drinking in his words.
“Saphira is the ace in our sleeve. She agreed to make pictures of all of us – it can be only sketches, she’ll add the ‘flesh’ to them as we go along – and she’ll keep restoring them while the curses hit us. Nevertheless, there’s a catch. We’re outnumbered, so Saphira might have a very hard time keeping up with the Black Monks’ ‘blows.’ It would drain her of her vital energy. So we need to go about this in an energy-saving way.”
Lugo frowns. “What do you mean, in an ‘energy-saving’ way?”
“We need guerrilla tactics. We first dispatch scouts to find out who are the Monks’ most important people, their leaders, their secret weapons, and we go for those. We try to keep in the shadow, unnoticed, for as long as possible in order to avoid as many blows as we can. And, of course, one of us has to go for the head of the octopus – Ivan Basarab, the Slayer. I will gladly take on the task.”
Lugo jolts forward and bumps into the table, that’s how much the statement charges him. “You know who he is, Marquis? You finally discovered that bastard’s true identity?”
Understandably, Kieran hesitates. There’s no easy way to put this, since Ivan Basarab is literally no easy man to pin down thanks to his very special power.
Kieran licks those sensual lips that look like sin, preparing to speak, but the doors open and Jeanie Simmons enters the hall, followed by a squad of serpent-men. It looks like she had just been saved from her brother’s hands and returned to her beloved Joyous’ arms that open broadly to receive her. Her sweet dark curls bounce up and down as she runs to the Healer, her otherwise milky face on fire, and her eyes still wide with fear.
“The people in town,” she calls out once in the safety of Joyous’ embrace, “they gathered with torches and weapons to march here and set fire to this manor, Marquis. They want to kill you, they’re convinced you’re the source of all evil that’s befallen Northville.”
Kieran’s face turns to ice, and my heart beats like crazy – he might be ready to fight all the foes out there, but there’s no way he’d fight the town people. They’re innocent, victims of the elite string-pullers, and he’d rather die than take on them – I read every one of his thoughts and feelings on his beautiful marble face. This could be a dead-end.
I cup Kieran’s jaw with my hands, and guide him to look at me. “There will never be a better time than this to use your powers for the good, Kieran.”
His black eyes search mine puzzled. I take a deep breath and, though feeling guilty for my thoughts, I share them. “Influence their feelings, Kieran. Make them fight your enemies instead of you.”
“What? Are you –“
“Yes, I am.”
“But Saphira, if I do that and don’t get to Basarab fast enough, they will die–“
“And what will happen to them if you die? Basarab’s Monks will finish them for sure, there’s no way they’ll leave any witnesses who could tell the tale of Northville. They won’t allow the slightest bit of truth to ever come to light, because it would turn the world upside down – engineered serpent men, painters who can make ‘voodoo pictures’ of people, healers? What will the world do when it finds out that lines such as ‘everybody dies,’ and ‘we’re all only human’ are bloody mockery? Yes, Kieran, normally influencing people is wrong, is bad, it’s a big No, but in this case, it’s plainly the best thing to do.”
To be continued on Friday.
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