Authors: Philip Athans
The guard didn’t look at her, either, his black eyes shifting from one side of the coach to another, determined to catch a sign of an ambush that never came.
Phyrea’s neck ached from looking out the window. She sat facing the front of the coach and looked out to her left to see the palace. Looking out the window meant not only that she could avoid making eye contact with the black firedrake, but she wouldn’t have to acknowledge the ghost that sat beside him on the rear-facing bench.
Just because we made it this far, the old woman made of purple light said, doesn’t mean we won’t still be set upon by Salatis’s men.
Phyrea didn’t answer aloud. She didn’t want the guard to think she was speaking to him. But she wanted to tell
the old woman that the black firedrakes were Salatis’s men, and she’d ridden with one all day, thirty-five miles from the citadel. If he were still taking orders from the dead ransar, she would have been dead a log time ago.
Don’t be so sure, the old woman said.
Phyrea cringed, drawing, only briefly, the black firedrake’s attention. She thought the smell of charcoal grew stronger for a moment, until he had reassured himself that nothing was wrong.
Phyrea sighed, still staring at the Palace of Many Spires, and the feeling of dread that was always with her welled up in her chest. There was something about the idea of living in the palace that
The coach turned right at the first opportunity, carrying them farther from the palace, and into the seedy, impoverished Fourth Quarter.
Where are they taking us? the old woman asked, and Phyrea spared the ghost a glance and as subtle a shrug as she could manage.
Pristal Towers, Phyrea realized, not the Palace of Many Spires.
She sighed, relieved, but not sure why she should be.
It could still be a trap, said the old woman. Salatis didn’t care about you one way or the other, I think, but this Pristoleph will destroy you, of that you can be sure, and we may not be here to pick up the pieces.
Phyrea answered the ghost by” letting her emotions run unchecked for the length of time it took the coach to weave through the crowded, rutted, dirty Fourth Quarter streets and pause at the gate to Pristal Towers. She hoped that the beings of light and hate indeed wouldn’t be there to “pick up the pieces,” or to do anything for or to her, ever again. Phyrea further hoped that the ghosts could sense that from her.
The black firedrake insisted on exiting the coach first, and Phyrea let him. She told herself she would have to make herself accustomed to the guards. She was, after all, the wife of the ransar.
A temporary turn of affairs, at best, the ghost of the old woman commented.
As she slid out of the coach Phyrea spared the ghost a smirk. The old woman made no move to exit the coach, and Phyrea briefly thought maybe the old apparition would finally just ride away. But of course she was not nearly so lucky. When she looked up to greet Pristoleph, who waited for her on the broad steps leading to the entrance to his enormous manor home, the old woman stood only a few steps away from him, returning Phyrea’s smirk with her own tight-pressed line of indigo light.
“Phyrea, my love,” Pristoleph said, meeting her in the middle of the stairway with a burning embrace and a kiss chaste enough to be appropriate for the eyes of the staff that lined the stairs. “Your journey was safe?”
She returned the embrace and kissed him on the cheek, which almost scalded her lips. “I was well looked after.”
Pristoleph glanced over her shoulder and nodded to the black firedrake, who bowed in response then climbed into the coach.
“It has been a long time,” Pristoleph whispered in her ear as she looked oyer her shoulder to watch the coach pull away.
“Does he just ride around in there all the time?” she asked with a smile and a playful wink.
Pristoleph returned the smile and said, “No, but he would if I asked him to.”
He would have if Salatis had asked him to, too, the little boy with the missing arm said from behind her.
She didn’t pay the spirit any mind. Instead, she let Pristoleph lead her up the stairs. She nodded to each of the household staff as they passed, all of whom were gracious enough to smile and pretend they didn’t despise her, but she thought she knew otherwise.
“I thought you would never send for me,” she said to Pristoleph. “For a while there I imagined myself one of those insipid princesses from a child’s tale, locked away in
the highest room of the highest tower, living only to hope that the handsome prince would come to rescue me.”
“If you were that princess,” he said, “I would be the prince, and not the man who imprisoned you.”
Her smile faltered ever so slightly at that, though in her heart she felt that was true.
“Still, it’s been so long,” she said.
“Not even four months,” he replied, as though that wasn’t a long time.
“Four months since you became ransar,” she said, “but I’ve been at Firesteap for longer than that.”
“Of course,” he said, patting her hand, “and for that I am sorry, and I promise that I will spend what remains of my life making it up to you.”
“I suppose I should thank you for starting that process by not making me live in the Palace of Many Spires?”
They reached the top of the stairs and he stopped her before they went inside. He held her by the shoulders and looked in her eyes. Her heart warmed in her chest at the way he looked at her.
“I would have thought you’d be angry with me about that,” he said.
She put a hand to his fiery cheek and said, “Not at all. I’ve come to feel that Pristal Towers is my home, and that wasn’t easy for me. The palace would have felt too… temporary.”
“It wouldn’t have been,” he assured her. “It won’t be.”
She smiled, though she didn’t believe that for a second.
I don’t believe it, either, said the old woman.
wonder who the Red Wizard will choose next?p>
He’s different, Phyrea replied in her head. Don’t underestimate him.
She felt rather than heard the ghosts laugh, but ignored the feeling.
As they passed into the foyer and a butler handed them each a tallglass of her late father’s wine, she said, “The city doesn’t seem at all changed. It’s as though nothing ever happened.”
“And it wasn’t easy, these last months, making that so,” he said after he took a sip of the wine. She thought she heard the cool liquid hiss against his lips. “I’ve been busy not only restoring the damage done to buildings and streets, but to the hearts and minds of the senate and citizens alike. I think they’re already starting to realize that I will be more … let’s say, stable, than some of the previous ransars.”
It’s not the men themselves, but the position that’s unstable, said the man with the scar on his face, and Phyrea had to agree.
“So you will be the great reformer?” she asked.
He laughed as they strolled to a parlor and said, “Eventually, I hope to be, but for the nonce I’ve been busy putting things back to the way they were before the unfortunate siege.”
A siege he instigated, the old woman reminded her.
“Even the canal has been making startling progress,” he went on, and Phyrea’s flesh crawled at the sound of that word: canal. “It’s a wonder, considering it’s still in the hands of that barely-functional idiot Salatis put in charge of it.”
“Horemkensi?” she asked.
“I hear the workers call him Little Lord H, and have begun to ignore his orders,” Pristoleph replied. “Even the zombie workers the Thayan sold them are starting to disappear. What does it say about a man, I have to wonder, if a zombie, magically compelled to do so by a Red Wizard’s powerful necromancy, won’t even take him seriously?”
Phyrea shook her head and sank into a plush, silk-upholstered sofa. Pristoleph sat next to her, so close she could feel his heat, and he waved the butler away. The servant stepped backward through the double doors, pulling them closed in front of him.
“It has been a long time,” he said, setting his tallglass on the little table next to him. He took her glass from her and set it next to his, and looked at her with undisguised lustfire, even, in his eyes.
Though the word “canal” conjured an image of a man she still knew she loved in a way she could never love her husband, she had missed Pristoleph more than she thought she would, and the heat of him, the smell of him, his commanding presence surrounded by his seemingly limitless wealth, managed to push Ivar Devorast’s face from her thoughts.
“And how may I serve the ransar?” she whispered.
Pristoleph kissed her, burning her mouth with his tongue. As hot as it was, she pressed in harder still.
He pulled only a hair’s breadth away from her and said, “This ransar will serve you.”
30Eleint, the Year of the Unstrung Harp (1371 DR) The Canal Site
It’s true then,” the Cormyrean said, and T’juyu, who listened, invisible and unmoving, from behind the canvas rear wall of the tent, sensed more relief than surprise in his voice.
“Warden Truesilver,” a man’s voice repliedit was the alchemist. T’juyu didn’t know his name. “To what do we owe this-?”
“My king is dead,” Truesilver interrupted. A silence followed and T’juyu had no idea how to interpret it. “Our king has fallen on the field of battle.”
The alchemist cleared his throat and said, “I’m… shocked to hear that, Warden. I’m sorry.”
“Devorast?” Truesilver asked.
“He was a good man,” Ivar Devorast said. “He was a fair and forthright king.”
“I suppose that will suffice as an outpouring of grief for the misery of your homeland,” the warden replied. T’juyu wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.
“Is that what you came here to tell us?” Devorast asked, and from his tone T’juyu could tell he didn’t think that was the case.
“Please, Warden, sit,” the alchemist said.
There came a rustling and shuffling of feet as the three men settled themselves in the cramped, dark tent. For a while the only sounds were the general murmur of the campnot too loud with Devorast’s tent so far removed from the othersand the croaking of unseen frogs hiding in the tall grass around them. The night sky was devoid of stars and the breeze from the west was cool and damp.
“I heard a rumor that you had returned,” the visiting Cormyrean said. “You have taken back your canal, then.”
There was another pause then the alchemist said, “Well … not precisely.”
“What do you mean?” asked Truesilver. “I’ve seen the progress. It’s remarkable. This is truly a feat that will be the envy of… well, everyone.”
“Horemkensi,” Devorast said, “is the master builder.”
“Whatever does that mean?”
“It means,” said the alchemist, “that as far as anyone who matters in Innarlith knows, Senator Horemkensi is directing the construction of the canal, not Ivar Devorast.”
“And I would prefer that that fiction remain in place,” Devorast said. “At least for now.”
There was another pause, but T’juyu could hear the warden breathing loudly. Finally the Cormyrean said, “That’s an outrage. The new ransar is so loyal to this Horemkensi that he wouldn’t hear your plea?”
If it was possible to hear someone shrug, T’juyu heard it, or at least sensed it from the alchemist.
“Have you even spoken to him?” Truesilver asked.
“Pristoleph?” the alchemist replied.
“No,” said Devorast.
“I’ve met with him,” Truesilver said. “I’ve just come from Innarlith and plan to ride the rest of the way north to Arrabar. A Cormyrean ship awaits me there so that I can return home… to a kingdom without” He stopped speaking and even T’juyu could sense the discomfort in the air.
A footstep startled her and she brushed up against the canvas. Feet shifted inside, but T’juyu looked up at the sound of another footstep outside, then another. A man carrying a short spear and wearing ring mail that looked at least a size too big for him passed. He looked and smelled drunkonly a littlebut he still seemed determined to make his rounds.
T’juyu held her breath. Of course she could kill the guard, but then there would be a dead or missing guard, and the canal site would be placed on watch. The men in the tent would suspect that it was an assassin that had brushed their tent, and they would only be partly mistaken.
“Is someone there?” the alchemist called.
“Ahoy there,” the guard called back, teetering a bit as he came to a stop not half a yard from the invisible T’juyu.
“Is that you, Reety?” the alchemist responded from inside the tent.
“Aye,” the guard, who must have been a sailor before hiring on to guard the canal site, said around an airy belch. “It’s just me.”
“On your way, then,” Devorast said, and Reety moved on.
T’juyu didn’t risk a sigh.
“So,” Truesilver continued. “You should speak to Ransar Pristoleph.”
“I don’t need Pristoleph’s permission to do what I’m doing,” Devorast said. “And besides, his wife would never allow it.”
“His?” the Cormyrean started.
“It’s complicated,” the alchemist covered. “I hope we can leave it at that.”
Truesilver sighed loudly and T’juyu sensed that the three of them would leave the conversation there, and so it was her cue to leave. As she made her way as quietly as she could away from the tent, she heard a shuffle of parchment or paper from within and Truesilver said, “These are interesting. The way the teeth on these wheels…”
Then his voice was lost to the night, and so was T’juyu.
2Marpenoth, the Year of the Unstrung Harp The Canal Site
Though she had spent only a short time in the company of humans, T’juyu had gotten to know much about them. Within the first few heartbeats after stepping into the little clapboard shack that Senator Horemkensi called home, she knew he would be easy to get close to, and all she had to do was get close.
“Well, now,” the man said, his voice throaty and not unpleasant, “what do we have here?”
T’juyu smiled and pulled the door closed behind her, letting her gaze dart across the confines of the cabin, reassuring herself that they were alone.
“What is your name?” he asked, his smile matching hers, his teeth bright, his eyes dull.