NINE OF SHADOWS

A novel by Owen Kerr

PROLOGUE SIGNIFICATOR That which represents the supplicant's place and value in the draw; a physical or emotional symbol of the supplicant. - Interpretations: The Tarocco Italiano

Maddryn muttered an invocation and dragged the blade across his forearm. He flinched and cursed. Blood ran in a warm line to his elbow, and dripped onto a pad of virgin wool. Onehanded, he wiped the blade clean and tucked it back into its boot sheath. When the wool had turned entirely crimson, Scytha stanched the wound and dabbed on a salve refined from bread mold. She bound the cut with strips of linen. Maddryn hissed, more in irritation than pain. He carefully placed the blood-soaked wool into a shallow cavity at the center of the table. The wood was scarred and pitted with the memories of two decades' hard use. For all that, it was scrupulously clean. The house smelled of wax and citrus oil. An ancient bulldog snored and burbled under Scytha's chair. Maddryn gulped down his tea, grimaced and shook his head. "Satisfied?" Scytha inspected the bloody wool and grinned at him, her teeth white and straight. She laughed the laugh of a much younger woman. "Not really." "Why not?" "It was not long ago that a man would have given whiteseed for a fortune, not blood, and been eager for my help with the offering." Scytha sighed. "Many a time I kept one here until daybreak, sometimes longer. There was one lad -" "Please spare me the details. You wanted me here to tell my future, not your tawdry past." Maddryn waved his free hand dismissively. The sleeve of his léine rode up his arm, baring a bony wrist. Scytha said, "Bothers you, the thought of a raddled old hag like me in the midst of a

night-ride?" Maddryn rolled his eyes. She laughed again. "Alwell, I won't turn your stomach about." "Thank you." "Here. Do it like I told you." Scytha handed him the deck, thin-polished ivory plates with colorful enameled faces. He set the mug aside, shuffled and cut, then again, and a third time. With his left hand, Maddryn split the cards into five piles. "Where should we start?" she asked. Maddryn pointed to the fourth stack. "Get more tea." Maddryn stood and lurched to the stove. Scytha dealt out the top cards from each pile and fanned them out over the hole in the wood, blocking the stained wool from view. She continued until the table was covered in off-white plaques. The tea was viscous and rank. Maddryn drank it slowly, punishing himself with the taste. "What are you looking at?" he croaked. "The Foundation." Scytha said slowly, her eyes moving over the layout. "What's that?" "What it sounds like: the support where everything else is built." Maddryn groaned and massaged his eyes. "I thought the point of this little ritual was to make things more clear, rather than less." "Puppy." Scytha snorted. "I beg your pardon?" "You don't know what you're looking at, so you want to bite it, hump it or piss on it." "Your mastery of the scatological-" Her tone was stern. "You think this is some silly game played by old women and fools. Fine." Scytha glared at him. "It is not my place to enlighten you; gods know I've tried. Let this old fool play her game. I'll let you shed your hangover, and we're done." "It was not my intent to give offense-" "When you talk like that you sound like your mother." Silence. "Ready to listen?" Maddryn took another pull of the tea and shuddered. "Talk."

PART ONE

FOUNDATION The basis of the supplicant's question or concern. Scryers adept at their work will quickly discern the proper interpretation of the Foundation cards. - Interpretations: The Tarocco Italiano

CHAPTER ONE
XXII – The Other A nondescript man dressed in shades of brown and grey looks out an open window. We see a ship putting out to sea, sails full. To one side of the room is a full-length mirror, well lit by twenty-two candles. On the stone wall opposite, their light throws an eldritch shadow, twisted and strange. In the mirror's image, the man has fine clothes, opulent jewelry and a crown. - Interpretations: The Tarocco Italiano Rhys-Ian pulled blankets over his head in an attempt to block out the sunlight. The bedclothes muffled his voice. "Shut that curtain or bring me a charged pistol." "Aye, your Honor." Colin pulled the heavy curtains back into place and the bedroom fell into a sullen twilight. "It's done, your Honor." The valet's voice, educated and melodic, was at odds with his face, a map of tavern brawls and alley fights. "Ehhh. Don't speak again unless I command it." Colin nodded. "Are you nodding at me?" Colin nodded again. The sheets rustled, and one bloodshot eye peeked out. "What time is it?" Rhys-Ian whispered. Colin held up five fingers. "Is that supposed to be a joke?" A shake of the head, no. "In the morning?" Another shake.

"Enh. Something for my headache? Is that too much-" Colin pointed to the bedside table. A large mug of steaming beverage squatted on an oversized saucer. Rhys-Ian sniffed and grimaced. "Smells like one of Scytha's concoctions." A nod. "Have you tried it?" Nod. "Does it work?" Colin gave a slow nod, put a hand to his forehead, palm out, and swayed like a willow. "Not for the faint of heart, eh? Give it here." Colin maneuvered the mug into the pile of blankets. "Slow and steady or all at once?" Colin knocked back an invisible drink and shuddered. "Alwell. Tell my mother that I loved her. In my own way." Rhys-Ian choked down the drink. The mound of bedding collapsed backward. In the dim light, Colin straightened RhysIan's limbs and slowly removed the cocooning wool and linen, piling the sheets and blankets at the foot of the great bed. He pulled back the last sheet to give Rhys-Ian some air. Rhys-Ian gave a piteous moan. Colin left him alone long enough to pull the evening's clothing from the armoire -- long-sleeved léine of lavender cotton, fitted lamb's-wool trews in plum, with a leather coda dyed to match -- and to run a cloth over a well-shined pair of boots. When he came back to the bedside, there were some signs of life. The reddened eye had returned. "Was there a girl...?" A nod. "Two girls." A roll of the eyes, and a nod. "Pretty?" An appraising nod. 'Better than most' was the implication. "Did we...?" Colin grinned, the very image of a well-groomed mastiff.

Rhys-Ian sat up, turned to look at the expanse of the bed. The sheets and blankets were rumpled but empty. "Have they already left?" Nod. Rhys-Ian felt his face, wincing. "Was there a fight?" Vigorous nod. "Was anyone hurt?" Shrug and headshake. Rhys-Ian peered around the gloomy bedroom. A pillow lay on the floor. No fire in the hearth. All four windows draped. Rugs in place. Great-kilt folded neatly on the low kilt table. No signs of theft, arson, or foreign invasion. "Why am I awake?" A grin. Colin crossed his arms and looked up, silently whistling. "Oh, alwell, man. Feel free to speak. Softly." "Your aunt is here, your Honor. Says she'd like a word with you, when you have a moment." Rhys-Ian's eyes shot open. "Gods." "Yes, sir." "How long has...?" "Not quite an hour, sir. I advised her of your continuing ill health." "And?" Colin cleared his throat. "She said that she will speak with you this evening, and if she has to avert her eyes from your vomit- and urine-stained carcass, so be it." "You have a gift for quotation, Colin." "Thank you, your Honor." Rhys-Ian gasped, "Oh, gods! Maddryn! Was he hurt? I mean-" "I personally saw his Honororable Lordship safely home last night, after dragging your Honor upstairs." Rhys-Ian relaxed a fraction. "Alwell, perhaps Auntie won't want me dead." He pressed his hands to his face. "Get some clothes on me. Saddle a horse. Kill the groom. I'll bribe the cook for rations--" "Her Ladyship is in the downstairs parlor, your Honor." "Fine." A note of desperation. "Start shredding sheets. I'll find something to anchor the

rope--" "Your Honor, it might be prudent to determine your aunt's intentions before you take up the life of a highwayman." Colin's face was grave, his tone measured. "Highwayman?" "You're better suited to it than a career as a sailor. Better wardrobe, less seasickness. Dashing. Wicked. Dangerous." Man and servant stared at each other for a moment. Rhys-Ian said, "I suppose you think you're being funny." "No, sir." "Well thought-out, all the same." "Thank you, sir." Rhys-Ian levered himself out of bed and splashed some warm water from a pitcher into the porcelain basin next to it. He washed his face, gargled and spat. Colin stood waiting with his clothes. Rhys-Ian was dressed in moments. "Alwell. My boots, if you please? Thank you." Rhys-Ian stamped into them, then faced the large mirror that dominated the dressing table. Colin adjusted Rhys-Ian's collar and ran a brush in quick strokes through his hair. "Ow! Who taught you how to brush hair, Colin?" "My technique was refined by Master ap Donal, sir." "Ap Donal, the stablemaster?" "Yes, sir." Colin finished quickly, tying the hair into a queue. "I must say that people are easier than horses. Less area to cover. Fewer burrs. Somewhat less likely to kick or bite." Rhys-Ian stepped away, accepted his sword belt, and loosened the saber in its sheath. Colin grinned again. "Are we likely to see action in the parlor, your Honor? Shall I serve out arms to the maids and the butler? I can fetch that pistol you asked for earlier." Rhys-Ian looked glum. "I should have used it when I had the chance." He mimed putting it to his head. "I see. I do know of a few recipes for poison, your Honor. Purely theoretical researches, mind you --" "Are any of them swift and painless?" Rhys-Ian's question was strangely hopeful. "Sadly, no, sir."

"Alwell. Let us see what Auntie wants." Colin preceded his master down the stairway and opened the doors to the parlor. He bowed Rhys-Ian into the room and followed a step behind. They were greeted with dark blue satin and grey silk -- the elegantly-clad back of a woman standing in front of an unlit fireplace. She spoke without turning. "That will be all, Colin. Go to my handmaid; tell her that you are available to assist with the luggage. You will find her in the Emerald Suite." Colin exchanged glances with his master and left. The woman faced her nephew. "Rhys-Ian," said Baroness Alys nicBrigid in icy tones, "do you have any idea of the trouble that you have caused in the last nine days?"

*****

Duke Armin ap Diarmid, Margraf of the Eastern Frontier, Warlord of the Army of the East, swung into the large grey carriage and sat heavily. The springs took the beating in silence. He rapped twice on the roof, and the driver eased the matched four down the lane toward the gates of the nicBrigid townhouse. Armin unbuckled his armored collar and tossed it onto the seat opposite, narrowly missing the other occupant of the carriage. The man didn't move. He wore the crimson and yellow livery of the Duke's court. Armin rubbed his neck. "Where is the boy now?" "Visiting with the midwife, possibly for treatment of minor injuries sustained in a tavern brawl." Armin's spymaster was a nondescript man in his late thirties, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. "A number of sources claim the midwife is a scryer and a witch." Hand him a shovel and a hat, he's a workman, thought Armin. A pen and scroll, he's a scholar. Armin grunted. "Mayhap we should ask her if the boy is going to survive this. And the cousin?" "He was seen entering his mother's residence, in the company of his valet, the boy, and two young women."

Armin snorted. "Poured into a barrel and dragged home, then." "That would seem to be the case, yes." Nothing definite. This one counts his fingers every morning to make sure none have run off in the night. "The brawl." "There was some dispute over who would escort the ladies home." Armin leaned forward. "How'd our side do?" "Passably well. The cousin enjoys a good fight, the boy less so. The valet bears watching -- he dealt out broken ribs, flat noses and bloody heads, and didn't work up a lather doing it. Didn't hurt anyone too badly to walk away, either." "Efficient." "Precise in the application of force, certainly." A note of approval? Armin thought. Admiration? The carriage slowed and traffic sounds rose. The severe coach-and-four had left the outskirts and was now in the city proper. "Any change to my instructions, sir?" Armin shook his head. "Good work. Find me if you hear anything else." The spymaster nodded and rapped on the roof. The carriage stopped and he exited, gliding into the crowd without a backward look. Armin watched carefully and still lost sight of him in moments. The driver called and snapped the reins. The horses snorted -- the stink of too many people in not enough space -- and moved on. And give him a target, he's a weapon. I'll forget that at my peril.

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