They bought a suitable, small sailing boat off a widow who had no use for it and was quite welcome of the money and spent the day making black sails and staining the hull a darker brown before setting out just after sunset. All three donned dark clothes, and Denny put his long dark hair into a plait down his back. They sailed by starlight alone, following the curve of the distant shore. Kovel sat astern of the small ship, keen eyes watching the dark horizon, while Life and Denny stood together near the bow. The little sailing ship was not intended for long journeys, but the summer wind carried her quickly and silently over the ocean.
It was, in many ways, a romantic venture. The ship was a black ghost, gliding through the water, more silent by far than any other vessel Life had ever taken this far out to sea. Though Kovel stood behind them, it felt as though he was alone on the water with just Denny. In another situation, he knew the setting would have led to intimacies.
As it was, after Denny’s outburst, Life found himself even more fond of him than he had thought possible. Once such a speech would have frightened him away completely, but now he found that the very things that used to repel him about male suitors were exactly the sort of things that attracted him. Bringing Denny along didn’t make him any less masculine, or mean he wasn’t protecting him properly; it meant they were equals and that was as it should be.
More than once they spotted a patrol ship out on the horizon, but glided by unseen. After four hours, they reached the bay that opened into Dunica and found a dark, secluded place to run aground. The ship was too big to pull all the way on shore, but they dropped her anchor in the sand in the hope that she wouldn’t wash away with the tide.
Then they disembarked together and quietly began working their way toward the capital city.
When once the lights of Dunica had glowed through the night, now the port city stood mostly dark. Though it took longer, Life pushed away from the shore, so they’d approach the city from the northeast, as if they had covered the distance entirely by foot. This not only presented fewer guards trying to stop people from breaching the city via the shore, but allowed them to climb a hill to a higher level, providing them with the ability to observe the city from above.
Dunica was not walled, and it was easy to see the city was not even that well protected. Fires burned in a distant quadrant, but there appeared to be no fighting. Though Life did not expect sentries to notice them slipping into the city, he took the dagger Paramis had loaned him and held it in his hand as they crept down the plateau and made their way past sleeping homes.
The residential streets soon gave way to taverns and businesses, and their steps fell softer yet to prevent their approach from ringing out on the paved ground. The sources Paramis gave Life hadn’t known where Visnek spent his nights, but his daylight schedule had been fairly well mapped out. By dawn he was expected to be in his camp in Dunica, plotting strategies for his fleet and soldiers.
Though Life had explored much of Dunica during his shore leaves in the past, he had never been to the sector that Visnek had commandeered for his command post. The buildings there had once been used by the city magistrate and his officials, and they were some of the nicest buildings in the district, made of such fine white stone that even years of Korvalstieniav occupation hadn’t diminished their splendor.
He recalled once that Paramis had been taken to a celebration here in honor of an unexpected, much needed coffee shipment. Not enjoying such ceremonies, Life had skipped out; it was, he realized, the first time he’d agreed to visit Pamel’s Cove with Kovel.
Unlike much of the rest of the city, this area had guards posted at nearly every door. Many of the windows no longer had glass in them, but had been sealed up with bricks or, in some of the upper levels, metal bars, making the place look more like a prison than a palace.
A large russet and white Korvalstieniav flag hung over the main entrance, with several huge white letters emblazoned in the strange Korvalstieniav script.
Glancing at the stars, Life whispered, “We’ve still a few hours before sunrise. I recommend we find a place to eat and rest a little.”
It didn’t take long to find a few abandoned houses. Entire streets were deserted, much like they were in Pamel’s Cove. These, however, didn’t have frightened citizens hiding in their depths; not even the rats had found any reason to stay. It presented an excellent place to hide and after a quick, silent meal from the pack they’d brought, all three of them nestled down to catch a little rest.
Sleep didn’t come easily for Life, and more than once his nervousness of oversleeping jerked him awake. Despite Denny’s confrontation, the urge to sneak out and do this alone was quite powerful. As dawn began graying the distant sky, Life gave up on rest and got to his feet, leaving the other two to sleep. He walked to the doorway of the dilapidated building they’d taken refuge in and stared out. The summer sky was slate gray with clouds, as if the summer storms that had left Feor to drought the last few years had moved to Arisle.
While he did not actually enjoy rain, Life couldn’t protest an overcast sky; it meant fewer people on the street and would provide them better cover. He started when a hand fell over his shoulder, but it took just a moment to realize Denny had woken up and come up behind him. He still had his blanket wrapped around his shoulders and half enveloped Life in it from behind as he embraced him, resting his head on Life’s shoulder.
“I thought you’d left.”
Life took a deep breath and let it out. “I did think about it.” He reached across his chest to cover the hand Denny had on his shoulder with his own. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Denny stood on his toes and kissed the back of Life’s jaw. “It isn’t too late to pull out of this, you know. Killing Visnek isn’t worth dying for.”
Life closed his eyes. They’d never actually discussed killing Visnek. It was presumed, in a way, but they’d never said as much. In some ways, Life didn’t want to kill the man; that was too merciful.
What he wanted most was to knock him on his back, strip him naked and cut off that bit of flesh he was so fond of inflicting on unwilling people. If Life could do that, he would perhaps wish Visnek a good, long life. “He probably has one or two partners in his quarters right now, you know,” Life whispered, fingers squeezing Denny’s through the blanket. “There are others in Korvalstieniav; you know he must have replaced both you and Mila. He has to be stopped.”
“I know. I’m just selfish and so afraid I’ll lose you. It’s easier to believe the war will take care of him all on its own, without us having to interfere.”
“That isn’t how justice works. The Gods may protect the righteous, but they will not do your work for you. We have the means to stop him, so we must be responsible. The war could end and Visnek could live and escape. The war could end and not favor Arisle at all.”
“I can’t put much stock in Gods who would allow such a thing.”
Once Life would have believed that the Gods’ razing Arisle to the ground was proof of something inherently bad in Arisle; perhaps even the very fact that Arisle revered no Gods at all. Now, with Denny at his side, he felt quite differently. “Nor would I. All the more reason we must fight to make certain that it doesn’t happen.” The sky was beginning to blush and Life turned away from the view. “Let’s see what we can put together for breakfast. We’ll have to get going soon.”
They changed out of their dark clothes in the little house, leaving them behind in exchange for more typical Arislean fare. Denny powdered Life’s face with some of his white makeup. The result did not make Life look at all Arislean, but from a distance it would make spotting him as Fioryssean more difficult. After consulting the outdated map they had of Dunica they slipped out into the gray, damp morning.
Though they could not see the sun once it rose, it still provided enough light to make out the wall of ships that clogged the Dunica port. Most of them were the long wooden ships of the north, flying Korvalstieniav flags, but to Life’s horror some of them were steam vessels, undoubtedly captured by the enemy fleet.
The entire city was built on a very gradual slope that dipped toward the sea. It was far higher in the north, where they’d trekked in from, than it was by the port. As a result, they were able to climb onto the roof of another abandoned house and watch the soldiers as they began amassing down below. When Visnek finally appeared from his makeshift palace, he did so surrounded by the russet and white uniformed military that followed him everywhere.
Using the spyglass they’d brought, Life let out a low hiss. “Is that him? What a vile looking man.”
“Let me see.” Denny calmly took the spyglass from Life and focused it on the small troupe marching below. He took a sharp little breath and nodded for a few seconds before speaking. “Yes. Yes, that’s him. He’s really quite beautiful, in a terrible way.” He handed the spyglass back.
Life watched the figure through the glass. “How I wish I had a weapon that could take him out from here.”
“He would say it’s cowardly, but I wish you could do it from here too.”
Life focused on the man more closely. He wore the same russet and white military uniform as the rest and stood tall and broad in the typical Korvalstieniav way; clearly someone who had grown up in the thin air of the far north and had big lungs to compensate. His dark hair was cropped closely to his ears and had receded back at his temples. His jaw was square, his eyes dark, and his lips thin. His nose was also thin as well as long and slightly crooked, having clearly been broken once or twice.
Though it was extremely early, the man looked quite awake and very angry. Even from this distance it was easy to see he was furious, yelling at his troops as they marched, though up on the roof they were too far to hear even an echo.
Knowing Kovel wanted a glimpse, Life reluctantly handed the spyglass over.
Seeing the man made the knowledge that Denny had been intimate with him that much more terrible. The anger he felt for General Visnek was quite unlike any other anger Life had harbored before. His anguish at the way his family treated him was dull by comparison. Even his grief at losing Sariae, his beautiful young wife, was not on the same level. Seeing Visnek inspired revenge. “Let’s get into place.” He started working his way off the rooftop.
Denny followed, but Kovel watched through the spyglass for a while yet. He eventually moved to the ladder they had climbed up on, putting the spyglass inside his shirt for the descent. “You’re really going to do it, then? Get him alone and kill him, just like that.”
“He must be stopped.” Life took the spyglass from Kovel. “I don’t relish the thought of killing someone, but I will do it.”
Very politely, Denny said, “It isn’t as though he doesn’t deserve it.”
Kovel shook his head. “All right, then. Let’s get into place. Just . . . make sure you’re ready if you’re going to do this. If he knows your mind, he will not hesitate to kill you.”
Life mentally chewed on those words, but he said nothing as they made their way closer to the headquarters. The thought of stabbing through Visnek’s flesh with his dagger made his blood run cold, but Life trusted that when it came to it, he’d act. If Visnek looked ready to attack back, it’d be easier; then it’d be self-defense.
With the troops and general out, the headquarters weren’t nearly as heavily guarded and various workers came and went from a back entrance, cleaning the rooms and lavatories, doing laundry and bringing in fresh food and flowers from various supply ships. After several years of occupation, it wasn’t especially hard to infiltrate the building by posing as common workers who belonged there. Denny carried a large sack of laundry and Life and Kovel had a ladder between them. No one even glanced twice at Life, despite the fact that some of his powder was now smudged and sweating off.
Once inside they consulted an old construction map of the structure. “This is the room the mayor used as an office.” Life pointed to the map. “And Paramis’ sources indicate this is where Visnek is likely to hold his private court.”
“Yes, I’ve been in there before,” Denny said. “When I was playing here, he asked me to come see him once.” Denny glanced up. “Visnek, I mean, not the old mayor. There are large cabinets all around the room, stocked with books and various types of liquor. There’s a large desk that faces a couple recliner chairs . . . and a large sofa.”
Instead of blocking that new knowledge and its potential implications out of his mind, Life nurtured the anger it gave him, letting it grow in preparation for the confrontation. “Can you find the room again?”
“Yes, I think so.” Denny looked up and down the hall. “It was upstairs.”
Picking the ladder back up, they continued on their way, passing soldiers who completely ignored them. Denny started up a staircase and they went up three levels.
At the top they started down another corridor and passed a man in fancy Korvalstieniav military uniform. He stalked past them, then drew up short and turned back. When he spoke, he did so in Korvalstieniavean. “Hold up, I say.”
Knowing if he spoke he’d be seen as Fioryssean, Life grit his teeth and stopped, but kept his back to the man. Kovel turned, smiling, but said nothing.
It was Denny who spoke, answering back in Korvalstieniavean. “Yes, sir?”
The man looked all three of them over. “Where are you going with that ladder?”
“Ah, General Visnek asked us to uh, look at a problem he’s having with the uh, curtains in his room.” Denny smiled sweetly. “He’s uh, he’s not in, now, is he? We were told to do it while he was out.”
“No, he’s not in. Curtains, eh?” The man rubbed his chin. “Listen, there’s a filthy chandelier in the banquet hall downstairs that I’ve been trying to get someone to clean for months. Would you three tend to it after you’ve finished here?”
Denny’s eyebrows rose. “Why yes, of course sir. Right after we finish in General Visnek’s room.”
“Very good, thank you.”
The man looked at them all a bit longer, then shook his head and continued on his way.
Denny let out his breath. “He wants just to clean a chandelier when we’re done in Visnek’s room.” He laughed softly. “Come on, it isn’t much further.”
Kovel grinned over his shoulder back at Life. “Damn good thing he speaks Korvalstieniavean, isn’t it?”
Life smiled tightly, his heart still pounding from the potential for disaster that had been. He didn’t see it as a good thing at all—he wished Denny had never heard a word of Korvalstieniavean in his life.
When they finally got to Visnek’s room, Life had to stop and stare at the splendor for a moment. It was clear that the room had not originally looked the way it now did, covered as it was in fine tapestries and expensive looking statutes.
“He’s taken these from some of the finest homes and museums in Arisle,” Denny said, lightly trailing his finger over a perfect marble bust of a beautiful young girl. “This room is worth a fortune.”
After closing the door, Life and Kovel set down the ladder, and began to surveying the room. Life stared at a massive painting on the wall. “Look at it all! It’s everywhere!”
“Was it like this when you were here before?” Kovel turned a full circle.
“No.” Denny’s brow furrowed. “At least, I don’t think so.” He turned too. “No, definitely not. He got me a drink from that sideboard.” He pointed to a piece of furniture that was now completely blocked from access by a very large globe of the world.
Life stared at the cabinets against the wall, which were also practically unreachable due to the accumulation of items. “This is going to make hiding from him considerably more difficult.”
Kovel ran a hand up into his hair, thinking.
Denny turned back to Life. “Perhaps not.” He tilted his head. “He doesn’t know who you are, or even what you look like.” Denny smiled, reached up and rubbed his thumb over a linger spot of white on Life’s cheek. “If we use the same tactic we used to get in here, he’ll have no reason to suspect anything is off the level.”
Life couldn’t help but smile at Denny. “Same tactic?”
“What,” Kovel nodded, “you mean actually looking at the curtains?”
Denny smiled a sweet, impish little smile. “Yes. He’ll come in while you’re at the windows. Kovel can be up on the ladder and you near the bottom. By the time he sees you, he’ll already be in the room.”
Life felt his smile slipping. “And where’ll you be?”
Denny shrugged. “I’ll hide over here and shut the door once he’s inside.”
“That’s too dangerous. What if he takes you hostage?”
“I’ll make sure to get out of the way! We haven’t exactly got a lot of time to plan this!”
Life scowled. “I don’t like it.”
“Honestly, Life.” Kovel picked up one side of the ladder again. “How is it any less practical than jumping out of a cabinet at him?
“Then we could make sure he came back here alone. What if he comes in with someone? He could have a whole meeting with him!”
“Then I won’t shut the door. You’ll finish the curtains and we’ll leave; try again later.”
Kovel nodded. “He’s got to sleep sometime, after all.”
Life barred his teeth. “I should have left both of you back in Pamel’s Cove.”
Denny stretched up on his toes and kissed Life. “I’m very glad you didn’t. This is something we need to do together.”
Life kissed him back, but felt too anxious to make it a proper one. He hoped he wouldn’t soon regret not giving him a bit more attention in that moment. “You didn’t give me much of a choice.”
“No, I didn’t, did I?” Denny grinned broadly. “You’re starting to learn. You’ve not got a choice now, either, all right?” He curled a lock of Life’s black hair around his finger. “Everything will be all right. Just do as I say.”
“Um,” Kovel said, after propping the ladder against the far wall. “How exactly do we get out of here again after he’s dead?”
Denny didn’t take his eyes off Life. “The same way we came in.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Kovel rubbed the back of his head. “Don’t people generally scream a lot when they’re dying of horrific stab wounds?”
“Not if you kill them quickly enough.” Denny looked away from Life at last. “Or slit their throats.”
Life winced and looked away. “These walls are thick, and these tapestries will block the sound even more. We’ll just have to hope we can get out of here before anyone hears him and comes to investigate.”
“So, lots of running.” Kovel started closing the curtains, which made the room considerably darker. “Got it.” He repositioned the ladder and started up.
Cursing to himself, Life looked around the room again, hoping for inspiration for another, better plan. Perhaps they could just poison his drink—or his food. Unfortunately, they hadn’t brought any poison with them and, judging by just how buried the sideboard was now, it seemed rather unlikely that Visnek was drinking very much these days.
He reached down and pulled the dagger out of the sheath on his boot and lightly tested the blade against his finger. It was very sharp and looked very painful. He walked over to the ladder and nestled the dagger in the crook of his arm. His body was hot all over and he wiped his palms on his trousers more than once.
In the dimness of the room, he could only barely make out where Denny had chosen to hide. Against the dark tapestries, he looked like just another marble statue.
From atop the ladder, Kovel whispered, “When’s he due back?”
“Any minute,” Life replied. He dried his hands on his trousers again.
“Shh, I think I hear someone coming.” Denny flattened against the wall, but the footsteps went past the room they were in. “False alarm.”
No one said anything and after a few minutes, more footsteps could be heard approaching, these ringing out with the heavy steps of boots. Denny didn’t have to whisper a warning, all three were instantly tensed.
Life took comfort in the knowledge that the footfalls were solo.
At the closed door, steps stopped. Someone muttered something and then pushed the door open, peering around into the dim room. It was Visnek, and he called out something in Korvalstieniavean that sounded like a question.
Life wished they’d left the door open; Visnek was already suspicious.
“Just fixing the curtains in here!” Kovel said in Arislean. He waved and Visnek’s eyes immediately went to the man on the ladder who he’d clearly not seen at first.
Visnek spoke again in Korvalstieniav, striding forward angrily.
It was as he approached that Life realized just how tall the man was. It was a strange thing to think about in such a dangerous moment, but Life would have sworn the man was several inches taller than even Cannon. In passing, it would have hardly fazed him, but when he was considering leaping at the man to slice open his throat, it rather put Life off guard; he wasn’t even sure he could reach.
Visnek was shouting at Kovel now and so close some of the spittle from his shouts was flecking onto Life. Somehow, this tall, frightening war general had completely failed to see Life standing at the foot of the ladder.
“Who are you!” Visnek shouted, switching to heavily accented Arislean. “Get down now!”
“All right, calm down, calm down!” Kovel shouted, putting his hands up.
Visnek kept shouting until a loud noise from behind signaled Denny slamming the door shut.
It sounded almost like cannon fire and Visnek spun around, presenting a wide expanse of back to Life. It was the perfect opportunity to get him from behind, but Life couldn’t make himself lift his hand.
“Oden!” Visnek shouted, his eyes wide.
He began stalking toward him, and that brought Life out of his reverie. “Hey!” he shouted and lunged forward, gripping Visnek’s shoulder. It was like grabbing a brick wall, but so intent was Visnek’s path that he put up no resistance and Life was able to spin him around.
The way Visnek’s eyes widened more seeing Life there assured him that he hadn’t seen him standing there before. Visnek shouted at Life, but before the words were out of his mouth, Life switched the dagger to his left hand and with his right hand decked Visnek in the face.
To Life’s surprise, Visnek didn’t go down, though it was clear the punch had surprised him. Not knowing what else to do, Life surged toward him, hoping to tackle him to the ground. It was like tackling an iron keg and despite the punch disorienting him, Visnek did not fall.
“How amusing,” Visnek said. He reached out and grabbed Life’s right arm, pulling it back in such a way that the dagger tumbled from his fingers. “You are a special friend of Oden’s, yes?” He laughed as he twisted the arm further back, until Life was sure it would snap. “I had wondered if I would see him again.”
Behind Visnek, Life could see Denny approaching. His heart ached at the thought of this failing. Despite the pain in his arm, he gritted his teeth and swung his left hand at Visnek. “Run away, Denny!” Life shouted. The punch connected in the tender spot of Visnek’s side, but it was like punching a sack of sand. The huge general just grinned, showing a mouth of bright, gleaming white teeth.
Suddenly Visnek’s eyes widened. His thin nose crinkled up as though he smelled something bad and his smile lost its upward curve.
Behind him, Life spied Denny again, eyes dark and vicious as he twisted something in his hand.
The motion caused Visnek to flinch and release Life’s arm. He staggered backward, one hand flailing to reach the dagger that was now sticking out of his back. Denny quickly hurried out of the way, running to where Life clutched his arm. “Are you all right?”
Life nodded, but couldn’t take his eyes off Visnek.
Kovel came down several rungs. “Maybe we ought to start running now?”
“Not yet.” Life felt strength surge back through him and pushed away from the other two. He grabbed one of Visnek’s flailing arms and tugged him around, so he could pull the dagger from his back. He grimaced at how it slick it made his hand.
“From . . . behind,” Visnek growled. “How dare you!”
“Yeah.” Life charged him again, but lower this time, knocking him off balance.
Visnek stumbled backward at first, but finally fell, crashing into some of the museum pieces as he did. The globe broke off its stand and shattered on the stone floor and one of the marble statues toppled, falling across Visnek, half pinning him under its weight.
Having fallen himself, Life discovered he was half on top of Visnek’s legs, now kicking in vain to disgorge the statue. Lifting his eyes, Life focused on the fastener on Visnek’s military trousers. Without letting himself think about it, Life picked the likeliest spot and drove the dagger in.
It was only when he did that that he realized Visnek hadn’t been screaming before. He had taken a dagger in his back almost calmly, but now his cry bellowed through the room.
Life pulled the dagger out, slicing as he did, and would have stabbed Visnek again if someone hadn’t grabbed his arms and dragged him off.
It was only when he was on his feet that he realized it was Kovel. “Stars above, Life! That’s enough.”
Denny was already at the door, fumbling in the dark with the latch. He opened it and hurried out into the rectangle of light the corridor provided. To Life’s horror, the bellows followed them there. Kovel quickly shut the door, and then tilted his head in the other direction. “This way. We’ll do better hiding for a bit.”